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To Pimp a Butterfly: the shape of jazz to come?

Kendrick LamarKendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly feels and sounds like one of the most important albums in years. I only wish I were able to explain properly why that might be so, but it would take somebody with a much deeper and more secure knowledge of the musical idiom and, more important, the social context from which it springs.

In his excellent Guardian review, Alexis Petridis invoked the names of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I hear something different. What it reminds me of — and this is about as high a compliment as I can pay — is a group of albums that came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, reflecting black America’s various states of mind in that turbulent era: the proud isolationism of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, the deep lament of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow, and the rage within the Last Poets’ debut album (the one containing “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”). It doesn’t sound remotely like any of them, of course, but it springs from the same collective consciousness, albeit from a very individual and, as it seems to me, original viewpoint. It, too, speaks of a turbulent time.

If you want to take your involvement further than appreciating the surface of the album, by getting to grips with the complicated issues that Kendrick Lamar is exploring, it’s worth listening to it once all the way through while reading the lyrics, which can be found here, along with a certain amount of textual analysis. Introspection is not uncommon among rappers, and there’s a refrain which crops up on several of the tracks: “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screaming in a hotel room.” But what’s going on here is not solipsism or self-pity. Lamar seems able to find a connection between his own soul-searching and a broader social context.

The totality of this very big and complex picture is what counts, but among the individual highlights for me are the sudden explosion of hard bop in “For Free? (Interlude)”, the appearance of Ronald Isley to sing a single resonant verse at the end of “How Much a Dollar Cost”, and the extraordinary passage in the closing “Mortal Man” where Lamar edits in sections of an interview given by Tupac Shakur, interposing his own voice in the place of the original interviewer (we don’t know whether he has rephrased the questions, or is merely repeating them). Tupac talks about the imminence of conflict: “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out of stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that.” He died in 1996, almost 20 years before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and, now, Walter Scott.

Easier for me to talk about is the contribution made by people such as the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the pianists Robert Glasper and Brandon Coleman, the saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, and the bassist Stephen Bruner (known as Thundercat) and his brother, the drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. The inclusion of these musicians in a project such as this, and in Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead from last year, might be among the best things to have happened to jazz in recent decades.

Ever since the eruption of bebop, which moved jazz away from the dancefloor, there has been a problematic relationship between jazz and the popular music of the day. Sometimes, as with the Charles Lloyd Quartet of the late ’60s, Miles Davis’s post-1968 music, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and, in a lighter tone, the work of Ramsey Lewis, Ronnie Laws and Roy Ayers, jazz has edged closer to the relationship it enjoyed in the ’20s and ’30s, when it maintained a balance between mind and body. It may be — although I say this very tentatively — that we are seeing the beginnings of re-engagement at a more organic level.

From the jazz perspective, there are extremely interesting interviews about the making of To Pimp a Butterfly with the participants here (with Natalie Weiner of Billboard) and here (with Jay Deshpande of Slate). Martin, Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Washington, Coleman and the Bruner brothers are around 30 years old and, like Lamar, grew up in Los Angeles. Several of them received an informal education at the late Billy Higgins’ regular World Stage gig in Leimert Park. Akinmusire, who is a similar age, was born in Oakland. Glasper is in his mid-thirties and was born in Texas and studied in New York. They are equally familiar and comfortable with the music of John Coltrane, Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Tupac Shakur, Thelonious Monk and Snoop Dogg. They know these idioms from the inside. And they’re finding ways to make that familiarity work.

I’ve also been listening to an advance copy of Washington’s extraordinary debut album, a three-CD set called The Epic. It’s a big work in title, tone and textures, almost three hours long, divided into 17 tracks, and lining up a 32-piece string orchestra, a 20-voice choir and the occasional vocal contribution by Patrice Quinn alongside a 10-piece jazz combo. An extract from one of Malcolm X’s most celebrated speeches also makes an appearance.

In its layering of the combo and the choir, The Epic has some of the sweep of Max Roach’s It’s Time and Donald Byrd’s I’m Tryin’ to Get Home, both of which were arranged, in 1962 and 1964 respectively, by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. In jazz terms, it stays mostly “inside”: the moves are the familiar ones of modal jazz from the era of A Love Supreme, before Coltrane cut loose in 1965 with Ascension, which took him into the final phase of his career. Any disappointment at a failure to engage with those later developments is mitigated by the sheer energy with which the music is attacked, and the degree of inventiveness on display within the now-traditional forms.

Washington’s music comes at you in waves, surging and receding with the power that Carlos Santana and Mike Shrieve were looking for when they tried to harness Coltrane’s sound and spirituality to the drive of their own Latino rock on Caravanserai, Welcome and Borboletta in the early ’70s. Multiple drummers, multiple electronic keyboards and modal structures are among the common elements. This is music in search of transcendence and/or catharsis.

Forty years later, however, there’s a great deal more self-assurance about this project, and the solos — particularly those of Washington, who has a sound as big as his ideas, and the trumpeter Igmar Thomas — never lack conviction or substance. Here’s a sample, a comparatively straight-ahead 14-minute piece called “Re Run Home”. You might find that the trumpet-trombone-tenor sound puts you in mind of the front line on Coltrane’s classic Blue Train, but there’s nothing to object to in that: why not use it as an available colour, offset by a very differently orientated rhythm section? Stay with it through to the conclusion, where the textures grow sparser but the groove intensifies.

It’s too early to be definitive about all this, to claim that this new development represents the future, or to dismiss it because the kind of jazz they’re exploring/exploiting isn’t, of itself, new and challenging. What matters is that some interesting young minds are facing up to the problem of where jazz goes next, and they’re turning it into an adventure.

* The photograph is from the insert accompanying To Pimp a Butterfly. The credited photographers are Denis Rouvre and Roberto Reyes. The Epic will be released at the beginning of May on the Brainfeeder label.

Glass window

Lennie TristanoIn an early chapter of Words Without Music, his new autobiography, Philip Glass remembers how, soon after his arrival in New York in 1957, while waiting for a place at the Juilliard conservatory, he called the pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano from a phone booth on the Upper West Side to ask for lessons. Tristano himself answered the phone.

“Mr Tristano, my name is Philip Glass. I’m a young composer. I’ve come to New York to study, and I know your work. Is there any chance I can study with you?”

“Do you play jazz?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you play the piano?”

“A little. I came here, really, to study at Juilliard, but I love your music and I wanted to be in touch with you.”

“Well,” he said, “thank you for the call, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can do for you.”

He was kind, almost gentle. He wished me luck.

Fifty years later, while listening to the section called “Train” from his opera Einstein on the Beach, the work that eventually made him famous, Glass found himself wondering about the source of inspiration for the piece:

A part of the music was almost screaming to be recognised. I began looking around in my record library, and I came upon the music of Lennie Tristano… I found what I was looking for. Two tracks: the first, “Line Up”, and the second, “East 32nd Street”. I listened to them and there it was. No, the notes weren’t the same. Most listeners would probably not have heard what I did. But the energy, the feel, and, I would say, the intention of the music was completely and accurately captured in the “Train”. It doesn’t sound like him, but it shares the idea of propulsion, the self-confidence, and the drive. There’s an athleticism to it, a nonchalance, an “I don’t care if you listen to it or not — here it is.”

By coincidence, I was in the middle of reading Glass’s book when a package arrived containing a two-CD set featuring a newly discovered live recording of Tristano and his sextet — Willie Dennis (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto), Warne Marsh (tenor), Buddy Jones (bass) and Mickey Simonetta (drums) — from the Blue Note club in Chicago in the spring of 1951. Tristano’s discography is sufficiently thin to make this album, with its excellent sound and impeccable annotation, a major event.

The mood is relaxed, the playing intense. Tristano was a Jesuitical figure whose insistence on technical and conceptual rigour from his students was legendary. Only the best survived. Konitz and Marsh were the best known of his acolytes, and they are close to top form here. Tristano’s own playing is as densely figured as usual, whether soloing or comping behind the horns. Dennis is the surprise: somehow he makes the trombone achieve the cliché-free agility required of Tristano’s improvisers.

All the tunes, as was Tristano’s wont, are based on his favourite chord sequences, whether he wrote them or not: “Fine and Dandy” for Marsh and Konitz’s “Sax of a Kind”, “All of Me” for Marsh’s “Background Music”, “Idaho” for Konitz’s “Tautology”. The leader’s suave spoken introductions are almost worth the price of admission alone, as when he follows Konitz’s swift, knotty “Palo Alto” (based on “Strike Up the Band”) with this: “I hope this gentlemen down here right in front enjoyed that more than he might have enjoyed ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, which he requested.”

Glass’s book provides a charmingly unpretentious portrait of an artist’s life, from the studies with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar which shaped his conception to his productive acquaintanceships with Samuel Beckett, Merce Cunningham, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, William Burroughs, Jasper Johns, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Papp and many others. There’s a valuable account of how he turned away from the post-war orthodoxy of 12-tone composition, including the following passage:

When I had returned to New York in 1967, I had discovered that the people around me at the time — painters and sculptors like Bob Rauschenberg , Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra — all listened to rock ‘n’ roll. They did not listen to modern music. It was not in their record collections.

When I asked them, “Do you listen to modern music?” I found that they weren’t interested at all. None of them listened to modern music: Stockhausen, Boulez, or Milton Babbitt — forget it. You’d never find that music there. There was more of a connection, for example, between artists and writers. What Ginsberg was doing in poetry and what Burroughs was doing in literature were not that different from what was going on in the art world.

“Why is there a disconnect here?” I asked myself.

Consciously, or to some degree unconsciously, I was looking for the music that should be in their record collection. If Rauschenberg and Johns were looking at paintings and saying, “What could go into a painting and what goes on in a painting?” I asked myself, “What is the music that goes with that art?”

I started going to the Fillmore East…

* The photograph is from the cover of Lennie Tristano: Chicago April 1951, released on the Uptown label. Philip Glass’s Words Without Music is published by Faber & Faber.

In the gallery

Giovanni Guidi TrioArt galleries can be good places to listen to creative music, and the small Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in London — in Fitzrovia, actually, with entrances in Rathbone Street and Newman Street — provided a near-perfect environment for last night’s concert by the trio of the young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, who has yet to become well known but is one of the most interesting musicians on the current European jazz scene.

Along with the American bassist Thomas Morgan and the Portuguese drummer João Lobo, Guidi was celebrating the release of This Is the Day, the trio’s second album for ECM. On its cover is a painting by the French artist Emmanuel Barcilon, who exhibits at Rosenfeld Porcini. Over the last couple of years Guidi has twice given solo recitals at the gallery, but this was the first time the trio has been heard in the UK.

The album is a thing of great beauty (as was its predecessor, City of Broken Dreams, which made my best-of-2013 list), displaying three musicians bringing new thoughts to a familiar format. While Guidi applies his restrained yet ardent lyricism and super-refined touch to melodies that sometimes resemble children’s hymns and to improvisations that drift and reshape themselves like high clouds, Morgan and Lobo provide something more than commentary. These are three-way conversations conducted with a wonderful collective sense of space. The drummer occasionally intervenes to spike the mood of romanticism with the astringency of scraped cymbals or dry rattling sounds. The bassist provides a running counterpoint that can move gently into the foreground.

But, as so often, live performance brought the music fully to life, allowing them to enhance the gorgeous cadences of Guidi compositions such as “Where They’d Lived” and “The Night It Rained Forever” and to dwell on the quiet sensuality of their version of the old favourite “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, written in the 1940s by the Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés.

This was the second time I’ve seen Thomas Morgan play live (the first was with Tomasz Stanko’s quartet two years ago) and it confirmed the first impression that he is a genuinely original musician. Over the last three or four years he’s become virtually ECM’s house bassist, turning in discreetly outstanding performances on albums by Masabumi Kikuchi, Enrico Rava, John Abercrombie, David Virelles, Craig Taborn and Jakob Bro, but Guidi’s group offers him the ideal environment for the full expression of his special gift.

On the face of it, he is a member of a generation of jazz bassists who’ve moved away from the ideal of technical virtuosity embodied by Scott LaFaro and Ron Carter, two great players whose influence became, through no fault of their own, overbearing and destructive. Now we hear more from bassists like Larry Grenadier — a member of Brad Mehldau’s trio for the past 20 years — and Olie Brice, who take their cue instead from the likes of Wilbur Ware and Charlie Haden and seem to believe that playing as fast and high as possible is not necessarily a desirable ambition. Morgan belongs in that camp, but he has something very different.

Born in California 1981, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, he has the air of a shy schoolboy who is still in the early stages of learning his instrument. If you watched him through soundproof glass, you would think that his playing was awkward, diffident, even indecisive. His fingers shape themselves for a note or a phrase, hover over the strings, and then appear to change their mind. Remove that glass and you discover that his note choices, while unpredictable and surprising, are almost always perfect. He has a lovely command of tone: the true sound of the instrument, beautifully shaded, full of humanity. If a note doesn’t need to be played, you can see him deciding to leave it out. His combination of resolute modesty and emotional directness will inevitably remind listeners of Haden, but it comes from a different and very intriguing place.

This Is The Day offers the best possible showcase for his qualities, but it works so well only because this is a balanced trio in which the parts function together perfectly, the individual contributions shining all the brighter for the richness of the interplay. Much of the music is played in tempo rubato, free of strict time, swelling and receding with a collective instinct for pulse and flow; there was one busy passage, however, in which they seemed to be hurtling forward together in metred time, and you had to listen hard to discover that this was a brilliant illusion.

Last night’s performance was the final date of a short European tour. The sustained warmth of the London audience’s response, which seemed to surprise and delight them (and led to a perfect encore with a dead-slow version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”), can only have encouraged them to continue their remarkable work together.

* The photograph of the Giovanni Guidi Trio is from the insert of This Is the Day, and was taken by Caterina di Perri.

R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.

Buenas dias, Havana. Adios, Buena Vista…

Cuba passportIt was October 24, 1983, an ordinary enough day, when I arrived at Havana’s José Martí airport on a gentle assignment to write a travel piece about Cuba for The Times. To staff journalists of all newspapers, these trips — usually laid on by a government or local tourist board — represent free holidays: there’s nothing demanding about them, and of course they’re ethically questionable. For me this one was a particularly interesting trip in prospect, given that Cuba wasn’t yet a real tourist destination and that I had a long-standing interest in the Castro revolution and its consequences. Very quickly it became a great deal more interesting, in a wholly unexpected way.

After checking into the Habana Riviera, a modernist 21-storey hotel built in 1957 by the mobster Meyer Lansky on the sea-front boulevard called the Malecón, I was taken to the Tropicana night club, where it might as well have been the night before Castro and his freedom fighters arrived in the city 24 years earlier. There were dancers in exotic costumes and a big band that sounded like the one Machito might have left behind when he emigrated to New York to make his fortune in 1940. This was going to be fun.

The next morning, however, everything changed. The office called to say that paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne had landed in Grenada, where they were fighting against Cubans. This turned out to be the vanguard of a full-scale invasion that eventually involved 7,000 American troops whose aim was to seize an airport under construction by Cuban workers and believed by Ronald Reagan to be intended for the use of Soviet transport planes. Or so the US story went.

The political background was complicated, involving the ousting and execution a few days earlier of Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s prime minister, who had staged a coup and established a People’s Revolutionary Government in 1979. Now another coup had installed a military government. The US justified their invasion, which lasted several days and claimed 89 lives (45 Grenadan, including 24 civilians killed in the accidental bombing of a mental hospital; 25 Cuban; and 19 American), by claiming that they had been requested to step in by the island’s governor-general and by the leaders of several other small Caribbean states.

If you couldn’t be in Grenada, Cuba was the best place for a reporter to be. The Cuban workers were fighting alongside those Grenadians who resisted the US forces. That morning, apart from the Guardian‘s stringer, Noll Scott, there were no other foreign journalists to be seen. This would change very quickly. Peter Arnett of the newly created CNN, a New Zealander who had won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on the Vietnam war for the Associated Press, was among the first to land. He was closely followed by a TV anchorman who kept a can of hairspray in his briefcase, for application just before the camera rolled.

Soon there were press conferences to attend — by Fidel, his brother Raúl, and their foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcón — and the British ambassador to be visited in an office that could have come straight from the pages of one of Graham Greene’s novels. A couple of days later, there were wounded workers to be seen arriving at the airport and interviewed in an impressively well appointed hospital a bit further down the Malecón. The scheduled visits to beaches and resort hotels in other parts of the island were quickly forgotten.

So I stayed on for a week, enjoying my temporary role as a foreign correspondent, filing news and op-ed pieces by telex. I went to gaze at the window in Che’s old office in the finance ministry, where the light is never switched off. I saw schoolchildren making a procession to the Malecón and throwing flowers into the sea in memory of the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. I walked to the famous junction of 23rd Avenue and 12th Street — 23 y 12 — where anti-imperialist demonstrations traditionally took place. I noted the posters with their patriotic slogans and the mansions lining the Paseo del Prado, a handsome18th century boulevard.

There was time, in between the reporting, to attend an afternoon concert in a small theatre where a series of elderly singers performed ballads to guitar accompaniment in a sober, understated style that was unfamiliar to me but seemed like a cross between French chanson and Portuguese fado. Its dignified restraint had nothing to do with charanga or salsa, the Cuban idioms with which I was acquainted. My guess today would be that it was trova or canción, related forms of traditional ballad-singing.

An example of the music I heard that day is contained in Lost and Found, an excellent compilation of unreleased recordings by the musicians who contributed to the historic Buena Vista Social Club album in 1996, many of whom are no longer with us. Its appearance coincides with the arrival of a farewell tour by the surviving members and their colleagues.

In between the typically vigorous tracks by Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Cachaíto López, Rubén González and the rest, the album features two solo pieces by Ochoa, recorded late at night in Havana’s Egrem studio at the end of a session for Ferrer’s solo album in 1998. Ochoa accompanies himself on guitar on a song called “Pedacito de Papel”, a ballad by Francisco Alberto Simó Damirón, a celebrated Dominican composer and pianist — known as Damirón — who died in 1992, aged 83. It’s preceded by a short piece called “Quiéreme Mucho”, an instrumental version of a song composed 100 years ago by the Cuban composer Gonzalo Roig.

The supreme elegance of this music enfolds me in the memory not just of an individual concert but of a rather unusual week.

* Lost and Found is released on the World Circuit label. The Buena Vista Social Club, including Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, begin a short British tour at Brighton Dome on April 4.

Phil Manzanera’s Sound of Blue

Phil ManzaneraThere’s a story behind the version of “No Church in the Wild” that appears on Phil Manzanera’s new album, and the guitarist tells it to here, in an interview with the Independent. In brief, Jay-Z and Kanye West sampled a guitar riff Manzanera had invented for the title track of his album K-Scope in 1978, and turned it into a track on their mega-hit album Watch the Throne. The result: Phil’s biggest payday in some time, although when they asked his permission, he’d just about forgotten the track existed.

He repaid the compliment by recording his version of their version, and including it on The Sound of Blue, which is out this week. He and his band premiered some of the tracks from the album last night at what he described as a friends-and-family gig in the basement of the Gibson guitars showroom in Eastcastle Street, near Piccadilly Circus. The set opened with some pleasant instrumentals, including one multi-sectioned piece featuring his old Roxy Music team-mate Andy Mackay on alto saxophone, appropriately titled “A Conversation with Andy Mackay”. But it really took off when Manzanera introduced a young London-based singer named Sonia Bernardo for two songs, the second of which was “No Church in the Wild”.

The first, “1960 Caracas”, referred to a scene from Manzanera’s peripatetic boyhood, which was spent in various parts of South America and the Caribbean. A dark, low-riding rhythm supported the title phrase, chanted by most of the band along with Bernardo as she tossed her long black hair and hoiked up her skirts in a manner that had the audience, men and women alike, reaching for their camera-phones. You could say she’d already made an impression.

But it was with “No Church in the Wild” that she really came into focus. Against that now fiendishly memorable guitar riff, supported by the bass guitar of the redoubtable Yaron Stavi, the drums of Javier Weyler and howlingly soulful Hammond effects from Paddy Milner’s synthesiser, she crooned and ululated with strength, control, conviction and a really enormous amount of presence. I love the track on the album (here is a Vimeo clip), but in person it revealed itself in three dimensions and full colour. When it was over, you just wanted them to play it again.

In an enjoyable show, those two songs made an impact out of all proportion to their brief duration. Sonia Bernardo is 24 years old and she comes from Portugal. It’s hard to imagine how she can be stopped.

* The Sound of Blue is released on Manzanera’s own label, Expression Records.

Michael Brown and ‘Walk Away Renee’

Left BankeMichael Brown died this week, aged 65. He was 16 when he wrote “Walk Away Renee” and recorded it with his group, the Left Banke. Countless hearts have been touched by it in the decades since its first appearance.

I love a song that begins with “And”. The listener is thrown straight into the middle of the singer’s emotions: “And when I see the signs that point one way / The lot we used to pass by every day…” So simple, so graphic, so universal. And there’s the sweet sadness of the last verse: “Your name and mine inside a heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small…”

It seems that Brown wrote the song about the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the group’s bass-guitarist, and the quasi-baroque arrangement of the Left Banke’s version, featuring a string quartet with an alto flute solo, was like a protective screen for the teenage protagonist, whose tone of wounded introspection was perfectly located by the singer, Steve Martin. (Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone – neither of them members of the group — are always credited as co-composers, but since neither seems to have done much else in the way of writing hit songs, you have to wonder about that.) The style of the arrangement was also a reminder that Brown, who played harpsichord on the session, had received a classical training.

He was born Michael Lookofsky, the son of Harry Lookofsky, a noted New York session violinist who appeared on countless albums — including a featured appearance, playing tenor violin, on a great Gil Evans session from 1971. The father owned the studio where the Left Banke recorded their debut single, which was released on the Smash label and made the US top five in September 1966.

Just over a year later came the first great cover version, by the Four Tops, in which the composer-producer team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier showed their ability to react to new developments by applying their genius to someone else’s song. Brown’s composition inspires one of Levi Stubbs’s finest vocal performances, introduced by that riveting brass fanfare, supported by Eddie Willis’s loosely strummed rhythm guitar and swept along by Benny Benjamin’s finest snare-and-tom-tom fills. And what is that combination featured during the instrumental interlude: muted trumpet and cor anglais, maybe? The textures throughout, and the sense of aural perspective they convey, still inspire astonishment.

Rickie Lee Jones recorded the third great version on her 10-inch album Girl At Her Volcano in 1983. She changes the song’s gender (from “Renee” to “Rene”) and stretches its inbuilt pathos about as far as it will go without disintegrating. As the tempo comes and goes, the singer seems to be slipping in and out of a reverie. It’s one of her most inventive and touching recorded performances. And behind her lovely piano, even the ’80s-style synth washes sound fine.

For me, these are the three indelible versions of a much-covered song which seldom fails to bring the best out of those who take it on. Thank you for that, Michael Brown.

The first rock critic

author pic by DannyBrightBefore there was Lester Bangs, before there was Robert Christgau, before there was Dave Marsh, before there was even Greil Marcus, there was Richard Goldstein, a man with some claim to having invented the job of rock critic. I began reading Goldstein’s pieces in the Village Voice in 1966, at about the time he started his weekly column, which was titled “Pop Eye”. He was aged 22 and had actually witnessed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; he wrote about the Velvet Underground in terms that made them sound like the most exciting thing happening that year. Which they turned out to be.

It would be more accurate to use Goldstein’s own scrupulous self-definition: “The first critic to write regularly about rock music in a major publication.” And the Voice was indeed then a major publication, a beatnik broadsheet ready-made for the incoming counterculture.

In Another Little Piece of My Heart, his new memoir of his life in the ’60s, he mentions that there is some dispute about whether he was actually the first. “A small magazine called Crawdaddy, which featured serious essays on rock, appeared a few months before my column began,” he writes. “If any of its writers want to claim that they got there first, I say, Go for it, dude! (And I’m sure you’re a dude.)”

I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. (In particular, he seemed rather too keen on the early work of the Bee Gees.) But I found myself in agreement with his provocative review of Sgt Pepper, in which he attracted scorn by claiming that the album represented a fall from the pinnacle represented by Rubber Soul and Revolver. Now he says that he has recanted. I haven’t.

His book is an entertaining account of growing up in a time of discovery. An unprepossessing (by his own account) kid from the Bronx, a seemingly unexceptional student at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, he found his way into the Voice, into Clay Felker’s trend-setting New York magazine, into the New York Times (whose editors censored his mention of Diana Ross farting during their encounter), and into many other publications.

It is a very ’60s story. He has extremely interesting things to say about Mailer, McLuhan, Marcuse and the Maharishi, about Janis and Jim, about Sontag and Spector (he attended the “River Deep — Mountain High” sessions), about William Burroughs and Brian Wilson. Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar narrowly missed his head at the Monterey pop festival (it was caught, he says, by Robert Christgau, his eventual successor at the Voice). The Velvets played at his wedding, MC’d by Murray the K at the Cheetah discotheque (a week later there was a proper Jewish ceremony, for his parents’ benefit).

He went to San Francisco to cover the Summer of Love with high hopes of witnessing the emergence of a new society, and has vivid memories of the disillusionment: “…the love-in lasted until it became apparent that the kids wandering around stoned and senseless were so many sitting ducks. Dope dealers and bruisers looking for sex descended on them, resulting in rapes and an influx of heroin. It was presented by the media as proof that the land of commodification was the only safe place; beyond lay dragons. It took less than a year for the festival to turn ugly.”

Those who chronicled the scene at the time will recognise his description of the business world’s swift adaptation to the new reality: “By 1967 the music industry had mastered the art of appealing to writers like me. Record executives wore their own version of the hippie look: a requisite Nehru jacket with a discreet string of beads. Publicists would flash a peace sign at the end of a pitch. At the major labels, there were rooms set aside for previews of albums not yet released. I remember being invited to one of those special private concerts. The president of the company, which specialised in rock with vaguely folkie credentials, greeted me personally. He ushered me into a sound-baffled chamber with huge speakers and plush chairs. He pointed to a butterfly-shaped box on the table, and then he left the room. Inside the box was a small pipe and a block of hashish. The music started. I sank into a chair and lit up. It was much harder than payola to resist.”

I haven’t read many first-person accounts of the era that make more responsible and convincing use of hindsight. Goldstein’s revolutionary politics — which extended to his own sexual identity — made him an uneasy observer quite early on. “Try as I might to be faithful to the spirit of the music,” he says, zooming in on the Who’s famous performance at Monterey from a vantage point among the hippie royalty in the VIP enclosure, “there was always something to remind me of the gap between authenticity and artifice that was such a central issue for me during the sixties. Rock, for all its power to stir and subvert, to shake and rattle the establishment, was also show business.”

Attracted to the world of Sontag, who encouraged but also patronised him, he writes: “I watched uneasily as intellectuals descended on radical culture and politics like tourists from the developed world. They were enchanted by what should have made them sceptical, and since they generally lived safe lives they were quite susceptible to the thrill of chaos.” The best thing about the ’60s, he says, was “the willingness to try nearly anything that hadn’t been tried before. It was a truly stimulating strategy, because it allowed young people to imagine the future in practically limitless terms. But it placed all our impulses on an equal footing, suppressing our ability to think and behave strategically.”

Goldstein was a believer in the revolutionary potential of art, and rock music turned out not to be quite the agent of revolution that he wanted it to be. His internal struggle reached the point at which “there was no way to justify remaining outside the battle.” The turning-point came when he went to Chicago in August 1968 to cover the protests at the Democratic Party convention and finally gave up the pretence of journalistic objectivity. In the face-off between the protesters and the police in Lincoln Park, he experienced his epiphany: “The moment when I removed my press pass was the instant when I crossed over from the regretful life of the protected to the thrilling zone of risk. Everyone here had seen, if not shed, blood. They were the hardcore, and I was finally among them.”

If his ultimate commitment to the music was not as deep, or his desire to turn it into a career as single-minded, as some of those who followed him, that makes his account, with its cherishable vignettes and constant self-questioning, all the more readable and thought-provoking.

Richard Goldstein’s Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s is published by Bloomsbury Circus. The photograph of the author is by Danny Bright.

Brooklyn Latino

PelirojaOut of the blue, a package arrived from Brooklyn the other day, accompanied by a note from Jacob Plasse, the guiding spirit of Chulo Records, an independent label operating under the rubric “New York Latin Soul”. The three discs he sent — by Peliroja, Melaza and Los Hacheros — reminded me that the Latino vitamin has been missing from my musical diet this winter.

They’re all good and worth investigating for the way they update Latin styles, but Peliroja’s Injusticia turned out to be the one that’s been almost impossible to prise out of the CD player. The heart of the group, its songwriters, are the lead singer Jainardo Batista, the keyboardist Mike Eckroth, and Plasse, who plays guitar and produced the album. The remainder of the core band are bassist Nick Movshon, baritone saxophonist Morgan Price, Carlos Padron on congas, timbales and other percussion. Plenty of others are involved, the name most swiftly catching my eye being that of the drummer Homer Steinweiss, familiar from his work with the brilliant Dap-Kings, Brooklyn’s kings of the kind of retro-soul that doesn’t sound retro at all (and with whom Movshon has also played).

On the label’s website, Plasse says that the sound of the band, some of whose members have played together since their schooldays, is inspired by “the sounds of Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Congo”. Peliroja play an updated, more globalised version of the kind of stuff I used to love from Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow and Willie Colon, and the lead-off track, “Bohemio”, is a very fine example of their application of 21st century energy to a classically structured salsa groove. “Honor Enjendrade” tips its hat to Africa and “La Fobia” would bring any club in the world to the boil as the full band thunders back in after the breakdown.

If those tracks gives a hint of the creativity Eckroth brings to the arrangements, a gorgeous ballad called “Se Equivoco” realises all the potential: the gruff baritone solo, a swooning dirge-dance from the guest strings, the steady sway of the bass, the slow ticking of the percussion and Batista’s expressive vocal make it a track I know I’ll be listening to for many years to come.

* The photograph is from the cover of Peliroja’s album. The website is chulorecords.com.

The story of Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny & Rhiannon GiddensI’ve been listening to Rhiannon Giddens’ new solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, while reading Mick Houghton’s just-published biography of Sandy Denny, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. Not at the same time, you understand, but it’s an interesting and salutary juxtaposition.

Tomorrow Is My Turn is almost scary in the perfection of its settings for Giddens’ treatment of blues, folk, country and gospel songs. As a producer of this kind of material, T Bone Burnett offers a guarantee of empathy: a mandolin here, a fiddle there, a banjo where needed, a touch of horns, a subtle wash of strings, all applied with the greatest sensitivity to an exquisite choice of material. It’s one of the year’s essential purchases, a huge step forward for a singer whose work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops had already established her credentials as an interpreter of roots music. She’s a very fine singer, and she deserves this treatment. You find yourself nodding your head in admiration as she copes so elegantly with the various idioms (even French chanson: check the poised understatement of her version of the Charles Aznavour song that gives the album its title).

Sandy Denny, however, was not merely a fine singer: she was a great one. Not only were her tone and phrasing lovely and distinctive, but she sang from the inside of a song and she had the gift of slowing your heartbeat to match the pulse of her music. What she didn’t possess were the attributes that seem to be propelling Giddens to a higher plane: a powerful sense of focus, a rock-solid self-confidence, and the right team around her at the right time.

I knew Sandy a little, and even 37 years after her death I found reading I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn an extremely distressing experience. Mick Houghton is not a dramatic writer, but he doesn’t need to be: he just needs to stitch together, with quiet diligence and the aid of fresh testimony from many of her surviving friends and colleagues, the story of how Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, born in Wimbledon in 1947, achieved recognition without managing to build the sort of career that everyone expected her to have, and then fell so fast and so conclusively that she was dead at 31.

Two linked episodes — the aftermath of Fairport Convention’s motorway tragedy and the saga of Fotheringay — stand out as pivotal. One night in May 1969 the van carrying members of Fairport Convention back to London from a gig in Birmingham crashed down an embankment on the M1, killing Martin Lamble, their drummer, and Jeannie Franklyn, the girlfriend of Richard Thompson, their lead guitarist. The traumatised band recruited a new drummer, Dave Mattacks, and a fiddler, Dave Swarbrick, and threw themselves into a different kind of project: the album Liege and Lief, in which they applied rock-band techniques to traditional material. It was released in December of that year, and its instant critical acceptance as a benchmark in the evolution of folk-rock diverted them from the musical path they would surely have followed had the accident never happened and the fast-evolving songwriting of Sandy and Richard remained the core of their activity.

Eventually the pair left in frustration, both keen to stretch their wings. Sandy put together the five-piece Fotheringay in 1970 with her new boyfriend, the Australian singer/guitarist Trevor Lucas. Joe Boyd, who had mentored and produced the Fairports, firmly believed that Sandy’s future was as a solo artist, not as a member of another group — particularly not one organised, as she insisted, along strictly democratic and non-hierarchical lines. He distrusted the charismatic but headstrong Lucas, and he was appalled by the way the record company’s large advance — originally predicated on a solo album — was being blown on such things as an oversized PA system and a Bentley in which they made their way to gigs.

But although Fotheringay’s first album, and their uncompleted second effort, may have been recorded under Boyd’s disapproving gaze, out of those sessions came the finest moment of Sandy’s career. Within the highly original and starkly dramatic arrangement of “Banks of the Nile”, a traditional ballad telling the story of the reaction of a young girl to the imminent departure of her soldier lover, Sandy seems to summon centuries of English history. As the singer Dick Gaughan said on the subject, in an eloquent note in the booklet accompanying A Boxful of Treasures, the five-CD anthology released by Fledg’ling Records in 2004: “The raw, aching agony which she brings to her reading of it makes it impossible not to feel the fear and grief of the young woman at the separation from her loved one and the uncertainty of his return from the horrors of war . . . It is the supreme example of the craft of interpreting traditional song and is the standard every singer should be aiming for.”

Sandy didn’t write “Banks of the Nile”, but she did write “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, “Late November”, “John the Gun”, “It’ll Take a Long Time” and other songs that showed her gift for taking a sudden but invariably graceful left turn with a melody or finessing an unexpected chord change with perfect logic, and for lyrics that often contained affectionate but clear-eyed portraits of friends and fellow musicians (Anne Briggs in “The Pond and the Stream”, for example, or Richard Thompson in “Nothing More”). But “Banks of the Nile” indicates most clearly what might have been, had a combination of internal and external pressures not provoked the disintegration of Fotheringay after less than a year, thus denying her the chance to remain a member of a sympathetic and settled unit whose collective musical ambition matched her own.

Chronic insecurities were beginning to hinder her career, particularly after the rupture with Boyd, which removed a provider of support and decisiveness. The biggest blow to Fotheringay was dealt by the Royal Albert Hall concert of October 1970. Disastrously, they invited Elton John to open the show, at the very moment when his career was taking off. He hadn’t yet grown into his full on-stage flamboyance, but his performance was powerful enough to put his hosts in the shade. When they came out after the intermission, it was somehow like the colour on a TV set had been suddenly turned off — and the audience, which had come to acclaim Sandy and her band, found themselves present at an epic anti-climax. Three months later, demoralised by that event and by the unsatisfactory sessions for their projected second album, the band broke up — thanks largely to a simple misunderstanding between Sandy and Joe Boyd over the terms on which he would produce her first solo effort.

In fact Boyd never produced her in the studio again, and the four solo albums released between 1971 and 1977 chronicle a diminishing ability to identify and present the essence of who she really was. The overproduced (by Lucas) cover version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” on the final album, Rendezvous, represented some sort of nadir. The record company — Island — did its best, which too often turned out to be not so good. She found herself agreeing to be photographed by David Bailey, to be dressed up in a 1930s costume, and to be airbrushed and wind-machined in an effort to create an image more superficially glamorous than that represented by her own true self. As Island grew too quickly and had its head turned by success, her career became, to some extent, collateral damage.

When she was voted Britain’s top female singer by the readers of the Melody Maker not once but twice, in 1970 and 1971, it was assumed that commercial success would take care of itself. But after Boyd, she didn’t get much constructive help — for which, now, I must partially blame myself, since I was running Island’s A&R department between 1973 and 1976. But the artists inherited from Boyd’s Witchseason stable were somehow thought to be a law unto themselves in terms of musical direction, and although Sandy was loved within the company for her warmth of her personality as well as for her artistry, she was not biddable. Nor, in those days, were real artists supposed to be.

Houghton doesn’t slow up the narrative by spending much time describing the music, but he does make some discreetly perceptive observations. He remarks that Sandy’s first solo release, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, is “the only album on which Sandy steadfastly stands her ground — usually by the seashore or the riverbank — and invites her audience to come to her.” And he writes of Trevor Lucas, five years later, working on the production of the ill-starred Rendezvous, “doing such protracted overdubs that it was almost as if he was subconsciously trying to bury the sentiments of the songs.”

Although delving deep into her turbulent love-match with Lucas and the increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol that accompanied her decline, he treads lightly when it comes to other, deeper-lying factors that might be held partially responsible for her unhappiness, such as an enduring fretfulness about her looks (particularly her weight) and an apparent history of abortions and miscarriages. Some readers may feel that the significance of these matters looms larger than the author allows himself to suggest. Eventually, in 1977, she would have a child with Lucas, a girl whom the father found it necessary to kidnap and take off to Australia less than a year later, as Sandy’s problems worsened. Four days after their unannounced departure she was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs at a friend’s flat in Barnes, and died in hospital a further four days later.

It’s a shock to realise that someone you knew has now been dead for longer than they were alive. Had she lived, she would have turned 68 a few weeks ago. Perhaps in that time she’d have encountered another manager, producer or A&R person capable of earning her trust, focusing her talent, nurturing the elements that made her unique, and presenting them to the world in the right package — the kind of package that Rhiannon Giddens seems to have been granted in 2015. Who knows how much great music was left in her? I like to think of Sandy coaxing Anne Briggs out of seclusion and inviting Kate Rusby to join them both on stage.

Houghton’s scrupulously fair account of her life makes it clear that she could be difficult and destructive, but allows those who knew her well to remember another side. The drummer Bruce Rowland — who had replaced Dave Mattacks in the Fairports by the time she recorded a last album, Rising for the Moon, with the band in 1975 — touchingly calls her “endlessly forgivable”. Her old folk-club mate Ralph McTell tells Houghton: “She would provoke — push people to the very limit at times, which sounds like she was a nasty person, but she wasn’t. People would take it because they loved her. I don’t know anyone who didn’t love her.” And you didn’t have to know her to love her. You only had to listen to “Banks of the Nile”.

* I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn is published by Faber & Faber. Tomorrow Is My Turn is released on the Nonesuch label.

 

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